Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Privatization Failure

Swedes will be going to the polls Sunday, September 14, and according to the Guardian it appears that they will vote the ruling center-right coalition out of power.  The main reason: the privatization of public services has not produced good results.  If Americans can learn from this experience we might avoid a real disaster.

Excerpts from the Guardian article:

Over the past three years, cracks have shown in the Nordic model, most notably with last year’s riots in the suburbs of Malmö and Stockholm, and the rise of the far-right Sweden Democrats, which is polling at almost 10%. Income gaps have increased by a third, more than in any other OECD country, and unemployment benefit has fallen below the European average.

Formerly called John Bauergymnasiet, Grillska used to be one of Sweden’s publicly funded but privately run friskolor (free schools) until its owner, the Danish private equity company Axcel, filed for bankruptcy last April.

Since then, the school has been managed – and improved – by Stockholm’s Stadsmissionen, a non-profit charity. But the John Bauer scandal has made many Swedes question the pro-privatization policies of the government, led by the Moderate party’s Fredrik Reinfeldt. . . .

A series of scandals has made many Swedes question the private sector’s role in public services. Axcel was accused of trying to maximize profits by saving on teachers’ wages and lowering the teacher-student ratio below the national average; the privately run Hälsans chain of preschools was reported to serve its pupils crispbread and water for lunch, having budgeted only nine kronor (87 p) a student for food.

No other state in Europe had been as generous in allowing the private sector free access to its pupils. The proportion of employees in privately provided services rose from 5% in 1993 to 23% in 2011.

“Overnight, the debate changed,” said Roger Jakobsson, Grillska’s head of education. “For years, people had been accusing schools run by private equity of pocketing the state’s money and putting it into their offshore bank accounts. But now it looked like these companies weren’t even capable of running a business properly.”

The education changes ushered in by the conservative government in 1992 promised to improve the quality of teaching in Swedish schools. Instead, the Programme for International Student Assessment saw the homeland of the Nobel prize drop below the OECD average in maths, reading comprehension, natural science and problem solving. Grade inflation, meanwhile, was rampant.

The care sector also suffered a privatisation scandal in 2011, when the Dagens Nyheter newspaper reported that an elderly care centre in Koppargården, run by the private company Carema, was catastrophically neglecting its customers, allegedly weighing their diapers to see if they could be used for longer, thus ensuring maximum usage and lower costs. . . .

Complaints about poor service and frequent delays on the high-speed train between Malmö and Stockholm also swung the mood against rail privatisation of the railways. How was it, some asked, that information centres were closing at train stations while Sweden’s popular, 100% state-owned Systembolaget alcohol stores could afford staff who advised on which wine went best with reindeer stew?

Under prime minister Reinfeldt, Sweden for the first time discovered an appetite for tax cuts. Wealth tax, income tax and corporate tax were slashed. Tax breaks for domestic services such as cleaning or babysitting (RUT) and relief on household renovations (ROT) have been popular with the middle classes. . . .

But surveys show that Swedes’ willingness to pay higher taxes has risen recently. As columnist Fredrik Virtanen said in Aftonbladet newspaper: “Taxes are the price we pay for civilisation. Not only is it cool to pay taxes, it’s sexy.”

Even Reinfeldt has bowed to the polls and vowed there would not be further tax cuts until 2018. Finance minister Anders Borg is still popular, and Sweden’s public debt, at 40% of GDP, is half that of Germany, but unemployment remains a problem in spite of liberal reforms in the labour market.

“The Moderates and their allies have gradually lost the argument about the future,” said Eric Sundström, political editor of Dagens Arena website. “They have failed to recognize how even the middle class is upset with the perceived general decline of schools and welfare services.”

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